Outdoors

How to Dress for the Outdoors During Fall and Winter

A woman properly dressed for hiking in the winter with her dog.

Being outdoors is absolutely zero fun when you’re not warm. Fall and winter are great seasons to enjoy the outdoors, as long as you know how to dress warmly.

The secret to staying warm is layering. However, layering doesn’t mean wearing all the winter gear in your closet at the same time. For those of you living in warm climates, it doesn’t mean wearing a sweatshirt on top of two shirts either.

There’s a proper way to layer for the cold. Here’s a look at the three layers you should always pack and what fabrics and weights to choose. Follow these guidelines so you can get outside this fall and winter to have some fun.

The 3 Must-Have Layers

Man properly dressed for cold weather

To stay warm and dry you need three layers. Because weather conditions can change quickly, you should always pack all three. Each of the three layers has a specific job to do. The layer closest to your skin is called the base layer. The base layer’s primary job is to keep you dry by wicking sweat off your skin.

Next, you’ll have the middle layer. This layer is sometimes referred to as the insulating layer. Its primary job is to keep you warm by retaining your body heat.

The last layer is the outer layer. It’s also known as the shell layer. Its job is to protect you from wind and rain.

Don’t forget to also layer bottoms. Start with a snug fitting wool or synthetic blend base layer and finish with a rain pant outer layer.

Base Layer

Man wearing long underwear and warm socks

Fabrics

When in cold weather, rule number one for your base layer is: no cotton! Cotton won’t keep you dry, and when the temperatures are low, if you’re not dry, you’re cold.

When shopping for a base layer you’ll want to look for merino wool, polyester, nylon, or other synthetic fabrics and blends. Your fabric options will have different levels of wicking, odor retention, and durability.

Merino wool is great at wicking away moisture and naturally resistant to bacteria that cause odors. The tradeoff is that it’s not as durable as synthetic fabrics. Still, if you’re hiking, backpacking, or camping for a few days at a time, the fact that it’s the most odor-resistant option, makes it a good choice.

Polyester, nylon, polypropylene, rayon, and blends of these fabrics will be the driest option as well as the most durable. Some of these have an odor-resistant coating, but overall synthetic fabrics will retain odors.

Fit and Weights

Your base layer can’t do its job if it’s not touching your skin. For this reason, your Base Layer should have a snug fit. Base layers will be labeled as lightweight, midweight, and heavyweight.

Although its main job is to keep you dry, heavier weights can also help keep you warm. Lightweight material is appropriate for cool weather, midweight for cold weather, and heavyweight for below freezing temperatures. However, these suggestions can vary depending on your activity level. If you’re constantly moving, you may want to go down a weight level.

Pieces

Your base layer pieces are basically long underwear. Generally, you’ll have a pair of tights and a base layer top. You may also find one piece options that cover both your top and bottom. Don’t forget about socks. You don’t usually wear three layers on your feet, but a good pair of merino wool socks can help keep you warm and comfortable.

Middle Layer

two puffy and warm jackets

Fabrics

Polyester fleece is a great choice for a middle layer fabric. Fleece can keep you warm, even if it gets wet, and it can dry quickly. Fleece is very breathable, which is great for a lot of activity. Wool is also an excellent option because it has many of the same pluses as fleece. It is great at insulating your body and will keep you warm if it gets wet.

Down jackets are also a great middle layer option. If you’re camping or backpacking, you’ll also enjoy the fact that they fold down to a very small size. Down packs the most warmth for its weight, but keep in mind it won’t be able to keep you warm if it gets wet.

Fit and Weights

A good middle layer is what will keep you nice and warm. With middle layer clothing, the rule of thumb is the puffier the warmer. You’ll still see weights listed as light, mid, and heavyweight (or 100, 200, 300), but overall the thicker it is the warmer it can keep you.

Make sure to get the weight that’s appropriate for the weather you’ll be out in. If you go with a heavy middle layer and you only need a light one, you’re going to be far too hot and get sweaty. focus on the right weight for the situation.

Also, make sure your middle layer doesn’t fit too tightly. In order to insulate you well, there needs to be a little bit of space. If it’s too tight, your body will be too restricted and not stay as warm as it could.

Pieces

Puffy jackets make great middle layer options. You can find puffy jackets filled with synthetic insulation rather than down. The main benefits are that they are less expensive and better at keeping you warm if they get wet. The main downside is that they can’t fold down as small, and weigh more. This is definitely a concern if you’re backpacking, but isn’t necessarily always a negative if you don’t need to space-save or keep weight low.

Another great option includes wool or synthetic sweaters. The effectiveness of these pieces really depends on your outer layer. If you have a thin outer layer designed only for water and wind protection, then you may want to opt for a more heavy duty jacket of some kind.

Don’t forget about your bottoms. In many cases, your legs can go with just the base layer and the outer layer, but if it’s really cold out, you should also have a middle layer for the bottom half of your body.

Outer Layer

Jackets and ponchos that work well as outer layer clothing

Fabrics

You’ll find nylon and polyester fabrics are often used for outerwear. They’re the best. At the high-end, you’ll find options that are waterproof, windproof, and breathable, but some won’t be as high quality and feature packed.

When you see outerwear labeled as waterproof it means it can keep you dry in heavy rain or rain that’s being blown sideways. The technology that makes outerwear waterproof also makes it windproof.

There’s also water-resistant outer layers. A water-resistant jacket keeps you dry in light rain and drizzle. These types of jackets are very lightweight and can fold up small (think windbreaker). These are perfect to have if you’re expecting overall good weather with only a little bit of light wind and rain possible.

You’ll find breathable options as well as non-breathable ones. Emergency ponchos, raincoats, and rain slickers are non-breathable. They’re excellent at keeping the rain out. However, if you’re active in them, you’ll be wearing your own personal sauna. These garments don’t allow sweat to escape. Sweat can make you just as cold as water so these are not a good option unless your outdoor adventure consists mostly of sitting or standing.

Fit and Weights

You’ll find various fits and weights of outer layer clothing. If you have a very good insulating layer you probably don’t need a heavy outer layer. Still, if you plan on going out when it’s very cold, consider getting outer layer clothing that also has some insulation material to it.

Again, don’t go with the tightest fit. You’ll have two layers on underneath your outer layer, so make sure there’s enough room for those layers to comfortably fit. Also, a little extra room between layers is good for heat retention.

Pieces

Outerwear will include a jacket and rain pants. Many people forget the need for pants on the outer layer, but it’s vitally important for staying warm and comfortable. Don’t forget the proper footwear either. You want footwear that’s comfortable, water-resistant or waterproof, provides good traction and is warm. Your base layer socks will do a lot to keep you warm, but the right boots or shoes complete the outfit.


Equipped with these 3 layers you can add and remove as needed—you’ll be well on your way to enjoying fall and winter outdoors.

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